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Vanity of Vanities
Glossy magazines were guilty pleasures--before they discovered George W. Bush.
By Noemie Emery
Weekly Standard
04/04/2005, Volume 010, Issue 27


ON MARCH 6, THE Drudge Report noted the fact that newsstand sales for the magazine Vanity Fair had plummeted by 22.5 percent during the last half of 2004, attributed by the editor to three successive covers that showed pictures of . . . men. What Drudge did not cite is the parallel fact that this slide tracks exactly with the mutation of the magazine from a great escape read of the guilty-pleasure variety, the place to go for fatuous film stars, Princess Diana, and society murders, into a Bush-bashing rag of the fiercest variety, one that at times last year seemed almost possessed.

In the July issue (out early in June), readers looking for their quick fix of high life and low morals were startled instead to read a hatchet job on Bush's female appointees and relations, a glowing account of Iraqi insurgents ("mothers, teachers, and seasoned warriors"), and a big wet kiss bestowed on former counterterror-chief-turned-Bush critic Richard Clarke. Subsequent issues featured an attack on Don Rumsfeld (by a media critic!), an even larger wet kiss bestowed on Joe Wilson (the publicity-hound spouse of outed spy Valerie Plame), attacks on the role of the church in the culture, claims that Bush's indifference had caused 9/11, claims that Bush's agriculture department had poisoned small children, an unreadable rant about the horrors to come should Bush be reelected, and a hilariously indignant and one-sided account of the Florida recount that only Al Gore could take seriously.

By September, in order to get at the good stuff--like the tale of an heiress who dropped dead in a health club--one had to wade through no less than four Bush-bashing pieces, including the editor's letter, two different pieces decrying the neocon chickenhawks, and one very long story depicting the president as a dark reading of HenryV--a born-again wastrel and drunkard who led his country to eventual ruin via an ill-advised war. Every month, the magazine found new ways to kvetch about the president. Bush dodged the draft! Bush was mean to John McCain in the 2000 primaries! Bush stole the election in Florida, and--watch out for those touch-screens!--is planning to steal it again. No one can really know what causes a rise or fall in magazine sales, and it is always possible that large numbers of readers were so repelled by the sight of Jude Law (cover boy on one of the poor-selling issues) that they fled screaming. But it also seems likely that not a few readers took a quick look at the table of contents, and dropped the thing back in its rack.

The new Vanity Fair is a story the old one might have wanted to cover, as it points up an interesting trend: The really fierce strains of anti-Bush feeling come less from established political sources than from what might be called the "glitz-based community"--people connected to Hollywood, fashion, or celebrity media, who produce diversions and lifestyle advice. At the shallower end of the pool of arts and intellect, they tend to produce the facile and transient; they make TV shows, or write them; make clothes, or write about them; try to become, or failing that tend to the needs of, celebrities.

A surprising number are media critics, who live at a twofold remove from engagement, as they comment on work that is less than important itself. Joining Vanity Fair in these up-market trenches are numerous glossies, the style and arts sections of the major papers, the New Yorker, known mainly for fiction and cultural coverage (and for ads for things costing zillions of dollars), and New York, known and read mainly for tips about shopping and real estate, restaurant ratings, and stories on murder and stock market crime. After the election, when the American Prospect and the New Republic were engaged in solemn bouts of soul-searching, the glossies indulged in new bouts of hysteria. "There will be a draft," imagined New York's James Atlas: "The polar ice caps will melt. . . . The Patriot Act will be used to stifle dissent in the media. . . . Jews will be rounded up." "Rounding up Jews" might not seem to compute with Bush's being a captive of neocons, but logic is not the strong suit of this faction. What Bush seems to be facing is less the normal opposition of a traditional part of the political class than a visceral uprising among fashionistas, a vast metrosexual spasm on behalf of a self-image based on cultural preening. "Do you mean there's still going to be civilization?" Atlas wrote on the grim morning of November 3: "Classical music, summaries of the week's New York Times Book Review, murmurous programs on the 'Treasures of Ancient China' exhibit at the Met?" Was the Met on the ballot? I seem to have missed it.

WHAT MAKES ALL THIS more than mildly funny is the fact that glitzkrieg--political war as carried on by the glossies--has become in a sense the core of the Democrats, their chief source of lucre, and most prominent face. "Look at Kerry's chief supporters and you see a new kind of elite," says Joel Kotkin, "a veritable 'hip-ocracy' of high-tech tycoons, Hollywood moguls and celebrities, and a bevy of Wall Street financiers." This describes the table of contents in most of the glossies, most of their subjects, and sometimes their writers and editors, one of whom pulled down a cool $100,000 for pitching a movie idea. An Axis of Edginess, they make up the Miramax wing of the party (named after the Hollywood studio that branched into publishing, and whose head is an ardent and tireless Democratic fundraiser). Last year, John Kerry cleared almost $50 million in Hollywood, and was seldom without a phalanx of film stars, who dominated his convention in Boston and stumped with him throughout the campaign.

"The most talked-about party at the Democratic convention was the one thrown by the Creative Coalition, featuring the kind of people one normally reads about at the supermarket," wrote the Wall Street Journal's Daniel Henninger. "The most talked-about Democratic fundraiser before the convention was at Radio City Music Hall, featuring Whoopi Goldberg. . . . The most talked-about Democratic fundraising event after the convention is the Vote for Change Tour. . . . The world of celebrity and the world of the Democratic party are now joined at the hip." To this the glitzies bring all their good judgment, their sense of proportion, and their understanding of the common man.

The Democrats who used to produce things--cars, steel, and foodstuffs--are being replaced by those who produce fads and fashion, things people enjoy but don't need. Societies need teachers, soldiers, engineers, and mechanics; they need people who drill for oil and fix cars; people who understand war and politics. No one needs sitcoms, movie reviews, handbag designers, gossip columnists, or professors of gender construction, but this superfluous cadre is becoming the core of the party of Truman and Roosevelt, an alliance of the superficial and trivial, along with the hopelessly poor. Call it the FDR coalition, minus the South, minus the farmers, minus a large part of labor, which has been weakening, and seeing the nonpublic sector part of its membership go over to voting Republican. This is not a national coalition, but it does know the best stores and best restaurants, and knows where to go for good hair.

Few embody the new order as perfectly as Tina Brown, once a notable editor of Vanity Fair and of the New Yorker, whose columns last year were the source of much innocent merriment. A pipeline into the collective psyche of the glitz-based community, Brown's column tracked the doings of the "New York Dems"--those wonderful people who bravely carried the torch for John Kerry all the way from fundraisers in East Hampton to watering holes on the upper East Side, where they shared anxieties over their overpriced menus. What fun it all was, and how we looked forward to Thursday, when her column appeared in the Washington Post!

Thanks to Tina, we know that at noon on Election Day--when the erroneous exit-polling gave rise to the eight-hour reign of President Kerry--Sex in the City actress Sarah Jessica Parker was receiving "minute-by-minute updates from Democratic get-out-the-vote wranglers in Ohio" at Michael's restaurant, and gloating over her chicken paillard. We know how they suffered through all of it, their power-meals interrupted by Bush-praising waiters; their fundraisers rained on, their simple pleasures constrained by the hard numbers: "Every time you go out to dinner in Manhattan, someone at the next table is anxiously parsing a poll." And then there was Brown's heartache on behalf of John Kerry, cosmetically deprived due to conservative raillery: "Grayer, because he can no longer risk getting a much-needed brunet rinse. . . . Ashen, because he can no longer take the chance that Internet split screens will show his pallid self beside a suspiciously oranged-up, sun-lamped version. And creased with furrows, because it's not worth the flak if Teresa's Botox guy gets caught with his little black bag on his way up to the campaign suite." (What could Lincoln not have done if he'd had a good stylist?)

Botox aside, Kerry was the ideal candidate for this troop of trendies, who never fail to get major things wrong. He had more money even than they did, come by with even less merit and work. His playgrounds--Nantucket and the chalet in Idaho--looked like ads for Ralph Lauren. His résumé looked terrific: Back Bay, private island, Swiss boarding school, Ivy League, interminable terms in the Senate, vacations with cousins in France. Even more than Martin Sheen, he looked like Hollywood's dream of a president; tall, almost emaciated, face long and solemn, brow furrowed with what could be mistaken for deep thought. Except that no one can remember an idea that he ever put forward, or a sentence he has said (in French or in English) that expressed anything novel or interesting. This of course made him ideal for the glitter-based wing of his party. "Kerry's Democratic allies view him as someone who is categorically superior to Bush in preparation, intellectual ability and knowledge of the world," Tom Curry wrote on MSNBC's website in September, quoting Teresa as dismissing as "idiots" those who demurred on Kerry's health insurance proposal. An intellectual without ideas, for trendies who think they are intellects. A perfect match.

THERE NEVER WAS A FULL COURT PRESS like the one put on in the last election by the lifestyle media, all of it dumping on Bush. Esquire had already obliged by showcasing angry Bush rejects John DiIulio and Paul O'Neill. New York treated the Republican convention in August as a hostile invasion. The New Yorker ran a two-page cartoon that showed Republican delegates with fangs and tails. In the New York Observer, Gail Sheehy, late of New York and Vanity Fair, trotted out the Jersey Girls, four widows of September 11, to blame Bush, Rice, and Rumsfeld for killing their husbands. Tina Brown longed for "an up-close moron moment with the president, vivid enough to power negative reinforcement forever on late-night TV." No rock concert was complete without the artiste interrupting the program to curse out the president. "Go to the shrink, unload your fantasies about both Air Force One and Two going down," advised Chris Smith in New York just after the election. The outbursts of spleen by the crème de la something led the glitterati to cherish hopes that somehow the word would get through to those zombies out there between Zabar's and Malibu. "The red states will eventually 'get it' about Bush--won't they?" Brown wrote in April. "The capital of media and marketing can't believe that the country will stay on these rancorous, mutually exclusive parallel tracks forever. Surely politics, like fashion, trickles down?"

Well, no. Bush won. After four years of glitzkrieg, he turned a three million vote deficit against Gore and Nader into a three million vote victory. He even picked up votes in the blue states, the bailiwicks of the media biggies, winning 300,000 more votes than in 2000 in California, and 200,000 more votes in New York. Among the groups thought of as house pets by the glitz-based community, he made critical gains: He gained among Jews, blacks, and Hispanics, and shrank the gender gap, winning men by 11 points, while losing women by 3. Since one of the glitzies' main themes was that Bush loathed blacks, Jews, and women, this suggests that their words did not resonate, and that their arrogance combined with hysteria may well have turned people off. Poor things. Nobody ever told them of the dangers of overkill, or warned them that what came across as knowing and cute at their soirees could sound bizarre to a rational audience, that what they thought of as taking a stand looked a lot like throwing a tantrum.

After the election, a little stunned by their own lack of influence, some seemed afraid that hordes of red-staters were about to descend and impound them for treason, but the truth was much more crushing: Nobody hated them, nobody feared them, and nobody cared what they thought. "Elites . . . believe that their underappreciated political insight is a natural byproduct of their own proven artistic genius, education, talent or capital," says Victor Davis Hanson, who does not sing or dance, but knows a great deal of history. "It is apparently a terrible thing to be sensitive, glib, smart, educated, or chic--and not be listened to."

No one told them either of the dangers of dissonance: Like Hollywood stars who take the Lear jet to the Save the Earth Conference (and bleed for the poor while dripping in emeralds), the glossies are unlikely venues for moral haranguing. They make their money running ads that urge people to pamper themselves, and spend obscene sums on gadgets and trinkets. Their content extols people who indulge themselves hugely, and make and spend vast sums of cash. They exist to entertain, not to enlarge or enlighten; they feed not our hunger for beauty and truth, but our craving for gossip and opulence. No one can stay on a high plane forever, which is why these magazines thrive and flourish, but most readers can tell the difference between a diversion and life-and-death matters, and keep them quite segregated.

In the end, readers declined to take instruction in serious business from people who are more at home at Oscar Night parties than at Pentagon briefings, and spend their days watching sitcoms, or sucking up to publicists for TV stars. The glitzies thought their flash and their verbal facility made them a class of superior people. But right now, they look more like a Cliveden Set for the 21st century, shallow and surly, and over their heads in trying to face the real world and its dangers. And, as of this writing, hopelessly wrong.

A few years ago, talk-show pundette Laura Ingraham wrote a book called Shut Up & Sing, addressed to the divas of rockdom and Hollywood who take their mandate to entertain us through their theatrical talents to mean a directive to impress us with things they do less well, such as thinking. To the divas of the lifestyle press, one can only add: "Shut up, and go back to Princess Diana." And then we can love you again.

Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.



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